When the Buddha does talk about being in the present moment he never says to just hang out in the present moment, be fully present to the present moment.
It is always in the context of death contemplation — death could happen at any time and there are duties that have to be done. If you don’t do them now, they are not going to get done.
There is one famous poem in Majjhima 131. It starts out saying that:
you shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future.
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present, you clearly see,
right there, right there,
not taken in, unshaken.
Ardently doing what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow death.
So, there’s this concept of having a duty that should be done. We focus on the present moment because we are creating suffering in the present moment, and we want to learn how to stop. It comes from our actions so, it is important to understand the Buddhist’s take on what exactly are we doing in the present moment, how does it shape our experience.
What to accept
The Dharma teaches us what to accept — There are the influences that are coming in from the past. We can’t go back and change our past karma, but we also have the ability to do something about this raw material coming from the past and shaping it into our present experience. So we have a choice in how we are going to shape that material. And that’s something, also, we have to accept – that we are playing a role in this.
So, we have to look in to see what is that role that we are playing.
What not to accept
Things that the Buddha tells us not to accept in addition to what we are doing that is unskilful — he says he doesn’t accept the lazy and defeatist attitude.
Suffering does have a source, but it doesn’t always come from your past actions. It comes from what you are doing right now.
When you look at the images of the Buddha people on the path, there’s never an image of somebody sort of sitting back and just accepting. It’s always images of people who are searching, people who are engaged in battle people who are trying to develop a skill, always trying to learn to be more skilful, and how to shape the present moment.
He actually calls the Eightfold Noble Path the unexcelled victory in battle. So, there is a battle to be won; there’s work to be done.
The Buddha gives you another example: every night, when the sun sets, remind yourself –
“I could die tonight. Am I ready to go or are there any qualities in my mind that would make it difficult for me to let go?”
And if so, focus on working on those qualities, abandoning those causes of suffering.
The same thing, in the morning, when the sun rises,
“This could be my last sunrise. I could die today. Am I ready to go? If not, there’s work I got to do right now.”
The Four Noble Truths
These duties that the Buddha was referring to here, of course, are the duties that come under the Four Noble Truths.
There is suffering.
What is the suffering? You want to comprehend it. There are a lot of things we do that create suffering, but we just hold to them. And the Buddha wants you to look carefully at that. Do you see (that when) you’re doing this, you’re causing yourself suffering. Is it worth doing it? That’s the duty with regard to the First Noble Truth.
The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering, which is craving.
That should be abandoned. When you see the cause of suffering that’s what you let go. And most of us get these duties confused. We try to let go of the suffering.
First, you (have to) understand what induced you to cling to begin with. What was the desire that you had? That’s what you let go of.
Otherwise, it is like going into a house seeing the house is filled with smoke, and you put out the smoke. As long as you keep putting out the smoke, it’s not going to stop. You got to find where is the fire. Put out the fire, then you’re done.
The duty with the Third Noble Truth, which is the cessation of suffering.
It is to realise when you finally do let go of the craving, there is a moment when the suffering ceases. But the Buddha says, ultimately, there is a point where you stop the craving entirely. And that’s the end of suffering. You have dispassion for it. So, you try to realise that.
And then, there’s a path.
The path is to be developed. By engaging in the present moment in a more skilful way, we create better conditions for the future.
There is hope
And also, we are not stuck here. We are not stuck in this house.
The house is constantly burning. You can’t stop it from burning, but the Buddha says there is a fire escape. And so, we look for the fire escape; do the practice.
Ultimately, there is freedom that is not flammable, that will not burn us, and it’s outside of past, present, and future entirely. Because it is outside of time, it’s not going to be touched by anything.
The following is a transcript of the above video with some edits.
Inner peace definitely comes from consistent meditation. But not every time, and not straight away. One of the big challenges that modern people have is our addiction to instant gratification. Suppose you like music, you can listen to your favourite songs. Suppose you like movies, you can watch your favourite movie instantly. And you can watch new music and new movies. You can kind of keep getting born into pleasures, quickly, instantly. So, a lot of people don’t have much patience when they come to meditate and there is a lot of thinking and the thoughts might not be pleasant, and they are not thoughts that they want. But we have to be willing to sit with some unpleasantness.
Ajahn Chah talks about this as being the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. So, whatever suffering you experience in your process of cultivating mindfulness and deepening your meditation, this is suffering which has some benefits. Even if there are unwholesome thoughts coming up a lot or a lot of restlessness, a lot of worries, you learn a lot about your mind states.
Mindfulness is sometimes translated as truth-discerning awareness.
It just starts to see things more clearly. And, you might have been in denial before. You might not know the actual quality or content of your thoughts and when you come to meditate, you come to realise “oh! These are really greedy thoughts! There’s some really nasty thoughts!”. The mind can actually recognise what is wholesome and unwholesome. That is actually growth; A growth in mindfulness and clear comprehension. But we don’t like it. We don’t like seeing the unwholesomeness of the mind. But we have to. Because, seeing things clearly as they are it’s like this process of beginning to filter the mind – filter out the wholesome, and the unwholesome.
The Lord Buddha said that mental training is like refining gold. You have to take the black bits out too. If you want pure gold, you kind of have to smelt it, and you’d have to refine, you’d have to take the silt and the other things that aren’t gold. But in the end, what you get is gold.
For people who come to meditate and notice all these sorts of thinking and feel that they are not getting anywhere, I think it’s really important to challenge this. I really want people to have faith in the fact that sitting and knowing that you are thinking, and recognising the quality and the content of the thoughts is much much better than thinking and not knowing what you are thinking and not recognising the quality of your thoughts. And this is how we train the mind – by recognising what is wholesome, what is unwholesome, what is neutral. And normally, if you have patience to sit with the mind with a lot of thinking, that patience is something you bring into your life, and you should find that you get less reactive. Inside, the reaction might still be there but in the past, you would speak quickly, or you would complain more, or you would want to take revenge but if you have more mindfulness, more patience, you’re thinking it, but you can stop yourself saying it. Or you are saying it, and you can stop yourself after one sentence instead of a couple of pages.
Well, we do have to practise some patient endurance, and we do have to have firm resolve. If we just want happiness and peace, there’s another phrase, isn’t there? Spiritual materialism – where we are doing (the) practice because we want something. Yes, that’s what gets us to our cushion, and we have to have wholesome aspirations, wholesome desires, but when you come and practise to get deeper peace, you’ll learn more and more that it’s about letting go. And then, peaceful periods (would) open up. So, you’ll start to get what’s called Khanika Samādhi – moments of peacefulness, after five minutes of coolness, stillness, fullness. If a person is consistent with their meditation over a period of years, those periods (would) become frequent and longer.
In general, the trajectory is things will get better. There will be more moments of peacefulness, better quality of mindfulness, less quick to anger, quicker to stop ourselves if we’re having some angry reactivity, more ability to forgive people, less desire, or able to keep our desires and greed within healthier parameters.
If we are consistent with our daily level of our practice, there will be days when it is peaceful. That is what we have to notice, and we have to take that as the encouragement. Then, we get more determined to keep sowing the causes.
I really recommend that we do our meditation in the morning before going to work, because you’re wanting to develop the mindfulness to take into your day. So, you can be mindful in all postures and be mindful of your thoughts. And, then, if possible, meditate even in the evening as well. If you meditate a couple of times per day, you’re going to increase your chances of experiencing deep peace.
Those who persevere in their meditation, ever steadfast in their endeavour,
they firmly realise Nibbāna, that incomparable (state of) perfect peace.
– Dhammapada Verse 23
Welcome both the pleasant and the unpleasant meditation experiences, and see them as opportunities to understand your mind, to let go of unwholesome mind states, and to grow.
Frequently recollect the moments when you felt peace (no matter how short) to encourage yourself to stick to the practice.
Be patient with the results of your meditation, while consistently planting the seeds for peace in your daily life.
TLDR: When we don’t understand death, life can be very confusing. Recognising death’s uncertainty, we not only do what we like but do what matters.
Death is a reality no one likes to talk about. An ex-co-worker passed away lately and so did a friend’s sister. Throughout my life, I have seen the passing of family members to acquaintances. Either by illness and even accidents – some were sudden while others took a while to die. They include the old and the young. Reflecting on death inspired me to write about the mindfulness of death. However, being mindful of death does not mean we constantly lament and harp on this fact till the last breath. It is about how understanding death helps us live a good life.
Awareness of Death
The unique ability of humans is our ability to be more aware of death compared to less intelligent life on earth. Despite this awareness, we do not pay much attention to it. What do I mean by paying attention to the reality of death?
We do not pay attention to the fact we have no control over the timing of our death. But yet we try to control everything else in our lives. We aim to live a good life measured by what we have or have not. We try to control our environment and others for this good life to happen. When in reality, if we cannot control when and how we die, how much control can we have over life?
This does not mean we give up on life to be lazy and lie down to sleep all the time. But the lack of awareness of death’s uncertain timing is a big reason most of us live stressful, discontented, and sometimes acrimonious lives.
The Good Life Is Linked To Death
When we don’t understand death, life can be very confusing. This is one of my favorite sayings of Ajahn Chah, a forest meditation master. A simple way to look at this could be imagining our last moments at death. I have reflected on this a lot. What would be the thoughts running through my mind in the last moments?
Do I want to busy myself and sweat the small things in my life? No.
Do I want to spend my life in a state of discontentment and blaming others for obstructing my well-being? I must admit, I had begrudged others in my youth but also noticed I was really unhappy. It is not something that I want.
Having a good career and boasting about it wasn’t part of my plan too. I saw early in my life how fame and wealth come and go. Through my reflection, I saw how nothing really mattered in our striving because it will all be forgotten with time. If I died and became nothing, would having fame, having a fantastic career, and having good food or living in a big house give me a sense of satisfaction at death? Even if I had a loving partner or family, I had to leave them at death and there is no satisfaction at all – having lost my mother to death made me realize this.
That was what I reflected on in my youth. There was mindfulness of death in me. But I had no answer to what makes a fulfilling life. I focused instead of doing what I liked.
Mindfulness of Death Helps Us Let Go
Growing up I had thought the purpose of life was to achieve things and be satisfied at death. Only to realize that satisfaction never lasts. There was this constant thirst to fill the emptiness of the heart.
What filled my heart was recalling the good I had done in my life. Lifting the spirits of an intern in my company to helping another youth find stability in her career and life. Recalling how I had helped others filled my heart. The achievements I had at work could not really remember. Even if I did, they did not fill my heart, compared to how I was able to help others in little ways I could.
A good life should be a life that is relaxed and joyful, without guilt or regrets. To be relaxed is to be able to let go at every moment. We could have goals in life. Goals from learning a new skill to climbing the career ladder.
Understanding that we can never really have full control of people or of our environment, all we can is to do what is needed at this moment and then let it go.
To let go does not mean we are lazy or we do not care. To let go is to know that we don’t know what will turn out the next moment so there is no point thinking or holding onto it. Even if we want to help someone, that person may not want to receive help. So, we can only take whatever opportunity there is to help and let go rather than force a person to receive help or to expect an outcome.
Filling Our Own Hearts
What really matters is our heart. Mindfulness of death in every moment allows us to let go. Letting go we allow ourselves to grow in patience and inner security. Patience because we allow things to unfold from our actions without needing control. Inner security because mindfulness of death makes us aware of our mind, speech, and action. They all have a consequence on our conscience. This helps us become responsible for our actions. It would not be very pleasant to die with regrets of hurting someone or living a selfish life with the time we have.
Calling to mind our last moments allows us to let go of the trivial negativities that we hold so closely.
Knowing that many things are truly not within our control, to cultivate patience without the need for control.
To guard our hearts against regrets and guilt, develop compassion towards ourselves and others so that our impending death may be peaceful.
TLDR: Meditation is not all fun without struggles. It takes time and effort. It doesn’t just deliver peace and calm. It doesn’t make you invincible like a superhero. Here are 3 things I wished I knew.
Meditation has a wealth of awesome benefits- such as increasing calmness, improving memory and IQ, reducing anxiety and depression. As such, it is not surprising that well-known names have adopted these practices to ‘up their game’ literally. From NBA’s best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, to top cliff diver David Coltur, they have all sworn by the benefits of meditation.
They claim it sharpens their focus and prepares them for facing and managing highly stressful situations and powers their stellar performances. Meditation screams power, perfection and prestige. But is it really as such?
NBA star Lebron James as Calm Meditation App’s Ambassador
It’s easy to look at these glowing testimonials and have a wide-eyed naivety about what meditation can do for us. We may think, “Finally, something that can cure me of all my misery. I can be productive, successful and happy at the end of a 10 day Vipassana retreat!” This perspective most people have about the benefits of meditation is simply the product of marketing and branding in a world of “do more, be more, and have more”. However, the reality is not that fun. Here are 3 things I wish I knew before starting meditation.
1. Meditation Takes Time And Effort
Meditation is no different from any other methods of self-transformation. You need consistent practice over time to reap the fruits. While there is no exact time frame given for when one can expect to reap the fruits of meditation, the research by meditation app , Headspace and various mindfulness programmes suggest it takes 8-weeks to make changes such as increased neuron activities in different parts of the brain. Other research suggests a liberal estimation of 5 years for deep changes to be experienced by the meditator.
One thing that the body of literature can agree on though, is that the magic number for a consistent practice to experience the benefits is at least 3 times a week of 10–20 minutes practice.
Think of it as planting a mango seed- there needs to be consistency in watering the seed, protecting the sapling as it takes root against wild animals, bad weather and finally, taking care to remove weeds and pests that may grow as the plant matures. Eventually, with all the right conditions in place, you can take shelter under a beautiful mango tree while savouring the fruits of your delicious, sweet juicy ripe mangoes to your heart’s content.
2. When You Are Meditating, You Don’t Just Experience Calm And Peace.
Whoever told you that meditation was all about blissing out into cloud nine and thoughtless voids probably confused meditation with taking ‘weed’. Meditation is about developing an objective and non-judgmental attitude towards whatever that manifests in the present moment (as defined by the father of secular mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn).
This means whatever you face in life before you sit on the cushion- crippling anxiety, unresolved childhood traumas, anger issues, obsessive thoughts… will arise in your practice and unleash its full wrath. You will cry and you will break.
Evolutionary neurons in your brain will beckon at you to run, to hide, and to avoid thoughts you have hidden under the carpet for a long time.; But it is in staying with these moments of wreckage, and tuning into the ephemerality of this chaos that true acceptance occurs.
Meditation is not always an experience of peace, but always a training of peacefulness.
That, my dear friends, is the beginning of a beautiful healing.
3. Meditation Doesn’t Make You A Superhero
In this journey of life, we all come with different baggage, some heavier than others. We have to acknowledge our own limitations and be open to seeking and receiving help to lighten the load. Sometimes, meditation is just not the right support at the moment.
Imagine you are on your way to work and you get caught in a sudden downpour. You will need appropriate tools, such as a raincoat, umbrella or seek shelter indoors to keep yourself dry . You won’t just be standing there declaring “I’ve got an expensive $4000 water-resistant suit on, I’m safe!” Just because something is inherently high value, doesn’t necessarily mean it gives you power.
True power comes with being able to use the correct tool at the right time and right place. This applies to meditation too. Unfortunately, when it comes to our mental storms, some of us might be adamant about fixing ourselves only with our meditation practice, even though the depths of our struggles are well beyond what our muscle of mindfulness and acceptance can carry.
There could be a false belief that being spiritual or having a spiritual practice can bypass the immense challenges faced in one’s life, such as mental illnesses.
Sometimes, we just need professional help or to open up to the kindness of the community. It takes courage to be truthful to ourselves by acknowledging our sufferings. As someone who faces regular mood swings, I wished I knew earlier that my meditation practice doesn’t take away my right to be imperfect and to be a mess. In other words, it doesn’t make me a superhero and I don’t have to be one either.
In summary, meditation simply is a tool with wide-ranging benefits when mastered and applied skilfully; it doesn’t add to your identity or your personality.
It digs into what already is there – both the skanky and the dandy.
Facing your experience of being human after an eternity of distraction and avoidance is definitely not easy, so let compassion and acceptance light your path. Progress and maturity come with understanding. The human experience is complex and chaotic, and understanding that there is value to be found in every experience- even negative ones, and choosing to embrace them with kindness and discernment, is the definition of being alive.
May this reflection be helpful to all who begin their meditation journey, and may all find peace, healing and happiness. Inner change is the key to a better world. Hurt people hurt those around them.
If you are in a community, encourage open discussions and conversations on personal struggles and challenges. There is absolutely no shame in being a meditator AND feeling overwhelmed, and the more people talk about it, the less embarrassing it becomes.
Identify other tools that you can supplement your meditation practice with, such as journaling, yoga, breathing exercises and use the tools appropriately to each situation that you face in life.